26 June 2024

Nature Positive Bill

I'm very pleased to continue my remarks in support of the government's Nature Positive (Environment Protection Australia) Bill 2024. A full rewriting of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act will be what follows this bill. As I was saying earlier in the debate, this is a really key step, but it isn't the last step. There is more to come. As recommended by Graeme Samuel, the rewriting of the EPBC Act to bring it into the 21st century is what comes next. That in itself is a big piece of work, and I'm not just talking about the drafting of the document but about reaching a place where there are new rules that will actually work. We have been stuck with the John Howard environment laws, which aren't working for the environment. They're not working for business and haven't done for many, many years. Our laws need to be right, and they also need to be able to be supported by a majority of this parliament.

And, yes; to the naysayers, we are being ambitious in our environmental objectives. Our policy goal is Nature Positive, which describes circumstances where nature, including individual species and whole ecosystems, is being repaired and regenerated rather than being in decline. I was really pleased to have the Minister for the Environment in my electorate recently to look at an example where a threatened species, the parma wallaby, has been brought back from the brink thanks to the work of one family. Peter Pigott, better known as Uncle Pete's Toys, has for decades and decades committed himself to tackling the problems that the parma wallaby faces. That is fantastic example of what Nature Positive is.

Our ambition sits in a reality of what is here in this chamber and in the Senate, where we navigate a course between poles which are a significant distance apart. On the one side, the Liberals and Nationals don't want anything to change and just want to oppose and block improvements to environment laws. On the other side are the Greens, who I don't believe want a solution, because they're in it for the fight. I doubt I will ever forgive their actions in 2009, which led to the end of the CPRS and the end of climate action until our re election in 2022. That was 13 years of delay and damage. We cannot let that be repeated on this very important legislation and that which follows.

I am choosing to vote for progress and for a really big change. The only questions on this legislation should be: Do we want an independent EPA or not? Do we want better data to inform environmental decisions or not? And do we want tougher penalties for those breaking environment laws or not? They are the choices that we are making today.

These changes don't come in a vacuum. Last year Labor passed legislation to establish the world's first nature repair market, creating a market to encourage private spending on projects that protect and restore biodiversity, not unlike the work that Peter Pigott up in Mount Wilson has done with the Parma wallabies. We also increased the reach of our environmental laws so the minister for the environment must assess all unconventional gas projects, including shale gas, which trigger our environmental laws.

As the second stage of our environmental law changes, this legislation is the tough cop on the beat that we promised. Environment Protection Australia, our EPA, is an important part of delivering the government's Nature Positive Plan. Passing this legislation will mean that we can get on with the nuts and bolts of setting up the new EPA before they're asked to administer the future new environmental laws. It allows a smoother transition of responsibilities from the department to the agency. We're establishing Australia's first national independent environment protection agency, with strong new powers and penalties to better protect nature.

The EPA would administer Australia's national environmental laws so that we're making better, faster decisions that better protect the environment. It is possible to do all those things. It would be charged with delivering accountable, efficient, outcome focused and transparent environmental regulatory decision-making. The EPA would be a truly national environmental regulator that Australians can be proud of. It would be responsible for a wide range of activities under Australia's environmental laws, including things like recycling and waste exports, hazardous waste, wildlife trade, sea dumping, ozone protection, underwater cultural heritage and air quality.

We're investing in people, our planning and our systems to speed up development decisions and to deliver quicker yeses and, where necessary, quicker noes. The government's offsets audit found that one in seven projects using environmental offsets under our environmental laws currently had either clearly or potentially breached their approval conditions. A separate audit found that one in four had potentially failed to secure enough environmental credits to offset the damage they were doing, and we see this right through Western Sydney with major projects —a total failure. This is unacceptable, and there's been so little enforcement of these rules. That's what the EPA will do—be the enforcer. The EPA as the tough cop on the beat will enforce the laws through new monitoring, compliance and enforcement powers.

As I said, the offset is one particular area that I think we can all see needs an instant improvement. One of the pieces of data that came out last year was that one in seven developments could be in breach. Now, let's just explain what that is. That is where a business has not properly compensated for the impact the development is having on the environment. When you look at pockets of Cumberland plain in Western Sydney, there has been double dipping in terms of saying, 'Here's a piece that we're going to set aside,' and then, a few years later, that same piece will be set aside for a different project. The failure to properly administer this has been just catastrophic for the Cumberland plain in Western Sydney. Of course, the Samuel review into Australia's environment laws found that the regulator is not fulfilling this very necessary function. Professor Samuel also found that serious enforcement actions are rarely used and that penalties need to be more than 'a cost of doing business'.

Preventing environmental damage and ensuring our laws are upheld is one of the most important things that we can be doing in this place. For example, if organisations commit to mitigating, or to an offset to make up for, an unavoidable impact on nature, the public should be confident that that commitment will be kept, and right now we know that confidence is extremely low. When we put this bill into context, stage 3 of our nature positive legislation will continue our broader efforts to halt and reverse environmental decline and protect nature. The EPA in itself will deliver proportionate and effective risk based compliance and enforcement actions using high-quality data and information. It will provide assurance that environmental outcomes are being met.

What I'd say is that most businesses do the right thing. We know that. Those of us who have been in business and who have worked with businesses big and small know that people, by and large, want to do the right thing. But we also know that businesses will do what they're required to do. When the penalties for breaking the law are too low and the risk of being caught is negligible, some companies and some individuals regard breaking the law as an acceptable cost of doing business, and that's why we're increasing penalties too. For extremely serious breaches of federal environment law, courts will be able to impose penalties of up to $780 million in some circumstances. In urgent circumstances, the EPA will be able to issue environment protection orders or stop-work orders to address or prevent imminent significant environmental risks and harm. The EPA will also be able to audit businesses to ensure that they're compliant with the environmental approvals that they have been given. The minister will retain the power to make decisions where they wish to do so and, in practice, will make decisions based on the advice of the EPA. The EPA will play a really important role in the full delivery of the Nature Positive Plan and beyond. I think that once this organisation is established—as it is in every other state —we'll be saying, 'Why didn't we have this sooner?'

One of the other parts of this legislation that we're debating today is around the Environment Information Australia aspect. That is a body to enable better availability and use of environmental data, both in planning and decision-making. These bills set up the head of Environment Information Australia so it's an independent position with a legislative mandate to provide environmental data and information to the EPA, to the minister and to the public. That independent position is to report transparently on trends in the environment, and that will support the actions and decisions that we take to halt and reverse the decline and, in turn, to protect and restore nature.

A nature-positive Australia is good for the economy, it's good for livelihoods and it's good for wellbeing. A community like mine, which lives within a World Heritage area, knows that it's more than the wellbeing of our community; it's the viability of our community that depends on this.